The Musical Influences of The Jonestown Express

by Tom Graddon

(Tom Graddon is a native of the United Kingdom, where he obtained an undergraduate and masters degree in Law from Aberystwyth University. Tom has written previously on criminal and constitutional law and works primarily in police station advocacy and mediation. His interest in Jonestown surrounds the community’s musical contributions and influences. He can be contacted at tom.graddon@gmail.com.)

It is interesting to note the very broad selection of mainstream groups which the Express chose to cover or rearrange.

In California, He’s Able had been a Baptist homage to that good ol’, down country gospel music epitomised by the track Something’s Got a Hold of Me; popular in black ministries across the country and with the same audience the Temple sought to attract on the promise of its progressive, integrationist message.

In Guyana, the contrast in tone is stark. Far from the traditional religious influences, the Express embraced their tropical surroundings and unashamedly communal and hard-left leanings. Take This is Our Socialist Land, for example (Ref Q936, 00:11:35). This lively calypso track’s refrain opens:

We have won a victory,
Working and living in a land that is free
This is our socialist land
Father gave it to me

Like many of the tracks it is pointedly propagandist, in this case toward Jones and the leadership, but in others toward Jonestown or Guyana and its perceived left-leaning government; racial pride and equality; and socialism, communism and revolution. This was done either overtly as the above, or more covertly as in the band’s cover of George Gershwin’s popular Summertime (and the Living is Easy), wherein it is less apparent, but nonetheless still straightforward to infer that the “mommy and daddy standing by” at the end of the final verse are references to ‘mother’ Marceline and ‘father’ Jim Jones.

Jonestown and its Presence in Guyana

Jonestown was, for the Express, a cause for celebration. Whether the band was a calculated necessity for the provision of positive propaganda or the genuine coming-together of like minded musicians expressing their gratitude to their new home, or perhaps a combination of both and other factors, a large number of tracks reference Jonestown or the nation which adopted them directly.

In the band’s rendition of L.T.D.’s 1976 song Love Ballad (Q174), Garry ‘Poncho’ Johnson takes lead vocals and sings the following altered lyrics:

Original: Express:
I have never been so much I have never been so much
In love In love
Before Before
What a difference What a difference
A true love made in my life Jonestown made in my life
So nice, so right So nice, so right
Loving you gave me something new Jim, Jim Jones, gave me something new
That I never felt That I never felt
Never dreamed of Never dreamed of

Further, on Q219, Q408 and Q338 appear renditions of Joe Crocker’s 1974 You are so Beautiful to Me reworded as both “Jonestown is so Beautiful to Me” (219, 408) and “Guyana is So Beautiful to Me” (338). It is of note that representatives from the Guyanese government did visit Jonestown from time-to-time and it is most likely that songs such as these which praise Guyana directly were prepared with a motivation to impress and ingratiate the commune with their hosts. Certainly doing so would assist in fostering good relationships necessary in order to better ensure the success of applications for controlled items such as firearms, or accreditation for the school.

Race

Jonestown’s population was 68% African-American, and so the matter of race was an acute one to the people of the community and, therefore, to the Express. One of Jonestown’s principal appeals to Peoples Temple members in the United States was its remoteness from the ugly reality of racism and massive inequality that existed in the U.S. between white and black.

The Peoples Temple was established and saw through the era of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and peaceful and end to segregation, but into the 1970s members began to see the optimism of the 1960s give way to the brutality of the King Assassination Riots in 1968, then two more in 1969, followed by eighteen more race related riots across the country between 1970 and 1978.

For the majority-black membership of the Peoples Temple sights such as these on the nightly television news would be sure to cause jitters, which coupled with Jim Jones’ hysterical rhetoric suggesting minorities would be rounded up and placed in concentration camps would no doubt turn to a full panic.

The Express reflected the importance of the matter of race through the lyrics of the songs they chose to perform, just as they used music to drive home other points.  This is driven home in their cover of the O’Jays’ Message in Our Music (1976) at Q365, which was probably chosen deliberately for its lyric,

We’ve got a message in our music
We’ve got a message in our song
So come along, sing a song

Not only this though, the Express were decidedly pro-black in their choice of artists to cover. Statistically, the band covered black artists or groups 77% of the time, and of the 22 artists whose music was covered by the Express, 18 were black.

The tracks chosen reflected Peoples Temple’s strong integrationist, anti-racist political views, including most pointedly the 1969 Nina Simone song, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, which was powerfully performed by Marthea Hicks in a performance by the Express dated to 31st October 1978.

In that performance, the words of the song are altered from the original to “strong, gifted and black.” The original, already performed by a powerful, successful black woman, is already a powerful song of pride in one’s race, but the Express chose to take that meaning even further. Beyond the passion and energy of black youth that the original described, the Express version puts the song’s black subject into a position of power and of dominance. To be strong, gifted and black. To excel not only in one’s talent, but also to be able to physically overpower one’s adversaries.

There are also examples of original compositions which deal with the subject of race and the legacy of Martin Luther King. In particular is the song Don’t You Worry (Q219). This appears to be an original composition, but due to the poor quality of the audio the lyrics are very difficult to make out clearly.

A more complete discussion of this track, as well as a reproduction of the entire lyrics as far as they can be understood are reproduced below in the commentary on tape Q210.

This is a resistance song which describes police brutality in an abstract sense on the streets of the United States. The reference to Nixon is a rather dated political dig, even by the political climate of 1977-8, but Nixon was the unpopular bogeyman of the left during the course of his embattled presidency and reference to him is as unsurprising as a dig in a 2020 anti-war chant at Barack Obama or his predecessor George Bush Sr.

The manner in which race is addressed is conflicted in Jonestown. The band, while broadly drawing on afro-american artists and groups, makes very few overt references to the matter of race, while in other performances race is a hotly contested and emotive issue. For example, on Q210 a number of dramatic readings are recorded that specifically deal with the matter of racial injustice and race war. The most emotive of these is The House I Live In.

In this piece the performer speaks about racial injustice in the prison and judicial system. He describes the jailers as “pigs” and denounces what he calls the “fascist” system of conviction and incarceration, and explains that time spent in prison gives him “time to plan my next move.”

Communism, Socialism and Revolution

Many of the tracks praise the principles of socialism or communism and the spirit of revolution, either through re-wordings of already popular songs or in the band’s own compositions.

The opening track of cassette Q442 is an original composition called Be Glad You’ve Got Communism in Your Life and is that same refrain repeated several times, with no other lyrics, with backing music by the band.

Q975’s Comrade! (Welcome to this Socialist Land) is another original composition in an upbeat calypso style. It was no doubt written specifically as a welcome song for new arrivals to Jonestown. It’s chorus sets the tone for the newcomers, reminding them that they are comrades now, as they would be in the Soviet Union, Cuba or China, and that this is a Socialist country, quite apart from the United States.

The aggressive use of the word “oppressors” in the second verse underlines the change in attitude. This, the song proclaims, is a place protected from the caricature bogeyman United States conjured by Jones; a place of refuge for those suffering political persecution.

The lyrics are as follows, and demonstrate on their face the overt message the band is trying to communicate:

Comrade! welcome to the socialist land
Comrade! welcome to the socialist land
Comrade! welcome to the socialist land
Aren’t you glad to be in the socialist land?

We’d like to say hello to you
And welcome you to this land
Just sit right back enjoy yourself
We’ve only just begun

Our friend he brought us a long long way
To the land of plenty
The oppressors they cant stop us now
Because friends like you we have plenty

If you want to be free
In a land of plenty
it’s your job to look around
And give a helping hand to your people

The track has a runtime of 7 minutes, and after another song and a short address from Jones the band strikes up a reprise and continues for a further few minutes. It is easiest to imagine this song being played as new arrivals tend to their luggage around the tractor trailer in the muggy heat of an overcast July day in Guyana, gather in the pavilion to await Jones’ address, and then disburse to undertake their administrative tasks such as surrendering their documentation and arranging to be placed with a work group.

Others however have no clear underlying message. The wider theme of the majority of the tracks is one of love and optimism for a better world, freedom, and leaving behind one life to begin another. Such examples can be found time and again, from Everybody’s Talkin’:

I’m going where the sun keeps shining
In the pouring rain
Going where the weather suits my clothes
Banking off the northeast wind
Sailing on a summer breeze
Skipping over the ocean like a stone

To Betcha, By Golly, Wow, originally recorded by the Stylistics:

And betcha by golly, wow
You’re the one that I’ve been waiting for forever
And ever will my love for you keep growin’ strong
Keep growin’ strong

A Change is Gonna Come, by Sam Cooke:

It’s been a long, a long time comin’
But I know a change is gonna come
It’s been a long time comin’
But I know a change is gonna come

And Alfie, by Dianne Warwick:

As sure as I believe there’s not[1] a heaven above
Alfie, I know there’s something much more
Something even non-believers can believe in
I believe in love, Alfie
Without true love we just exist, Alfie
Until you find the love you’ve missed
You’re nothing, Alfie

As an aside, there is an irony to this track given the transition away from a much more religious theme adhered to by the PT in the United States, popularised by sermonising and faith healings, to the overtly communist and pseudo-atheist structure in Guyana.

Pseudo-atheist of course in the sense that Jones clearly and vulgarly marks a shift from a system characterised by a belief in the judeo-christian god while also maintaining his own deification. See the speech he gives at a welcome rally delivered in July 1978, on tape Q975 (00:21:14 and 00:23:41):

JJ: …This is not something for my department. My department is ministration and miracles…

JJ: [Spanish fly is] bullshit! Get away from that crap! It’s a fucking big fly! ‘Cause it’s the only sonofabitchin’ stuff he (god) made so much off. Little assholes that get birthed in shitholes. Mhmm. Thank you Jes-Ass.

Laughter

JJ: I wish somebody had raped Jes-Ass a long time ago, we’d have had a much better life. Thank you Jes-Ass! Shift your ass from right to left.

Vulgarity was a hallmark of Jones’ addresses to the people of Jonestown, appearing to be an attempt at building trust and rapport through course language intended to entertain through shock and basic crudeness.

Aside: Earth, Wind and Fire’s That’s the Way of the World

That’s the Way of the World is of note in perhaps only a coincidentally less superficial way. There are two extant renditions of this song, on cassette Q219 and on the NBC footage recorded by cameraman Bob Brown on November 17th 1978.

The Q219 version’s duration is 00:01:12 and the song is partial. The first few seconds of any cassette are unrecorded due to mechanical constraints of the medium, and so all but the last line of the first verse is lost, however it is clearly a rehearsal. The singer, presumably Dianna Wilkinson, practices singing the lyrics, but ad libbing most aside from the chorus and a few lines which she remembers.

In contrast the NBC version is the finished article. It could not have been lost on the band the importance of making a good impression for Senator Ryan and his party, and the Express logically would have chosen to perform their best and most well practiced pieces. Compare now therefore the original version with that of the NBC performance:

Original: Jonestown Express:
We come together on this special day We come together on this special day, well
Sing our message loud and clear With our message loud and clear
Looking back, we’ve touched on sorrowful days Looking back we’ve touched on sorrowful days
Future pass, they disappear The future, future, disappears
You will find peace of mind You will find peace of mind
If you look way down in your heart and soul If you look way down down in your heart and soul
Don’t hesitate ’cause the world seems cold Don’t you hesitate ‘cause that world seems cold
Stay young at heart, ’cause you’re never, never old Stay young at heart and you’re never never old

 

In addition to these revisions, the pre-chorus in the original,

That’s the way of the world
Plant your flower and you grow a pearl
Child is born with a heart of gold
Way of the world makes his heart so cold

Has been cut entirely from either Express version. It appears that these revisions have been made as edits to the original song, but it is unclear whether:

  • These were lyrical mistakes made during the performance;
  • Dianna wrote these herself due to her own preference;
  • These edits were the result of a collaborative discussion amongst the band-at-large; or
  • They were edits “approved” by either the Assistant Chief Administrative Officers or senior staff.

The pre-chorus is a metaphor for fertility, referencing growth and new life. The Jonestown attitude toward sex and relationships was complicated and predicated upon factors such as the requirement to control population and the potential hazards of overburdening those taking responsibility for the communal raising of children, as well as a sense of sexual liberation fueled by the changed attitudes of the Swinging 1960s. Decisions on the manner of conducting relationships and other matters were decided in the style of a town hall meeting, cast by vote of hands by ordinary majority,[2] but the community was anything but prudish.

In his welcome address to newcomers on Cassette Q975[3], Jones recalls a conversation he had with an unidentified person, presumably a representative from the Embassy of the Soviet Union in Guyana, which occasionally dispatched representatives to visit. He says that,

“He reached over, some of you have been uptight about fucking. He reached over and he said; to fuck what you have fucked– what you have done for socialism is the highest badge of character. And he said every communist in history should have given their body, and been willing to give their body wherever it was necessary”

Given Jones’ direct criticism of prudishness over sex amongst the Jonestown residents, (“some of you have been uptight about fucking”) it seems unusual that a very mild reference to reproduction should be removed from an otherwise relatively unaltered cover. No explanation can be proffered unfortunately, as no witness survives to attest to which, if any, is the correct interpretation of these revisions.

There may be those who choose to believe that the edits to the line relating the future disappearing after touching on sorrowful days is a deliberate and direct indication by Dianna Wilkinson of her foreknowledge of what was to occur the next day. While it cannot be entirely ruled out, it is extremely unlikely that this is the case.

Notes left by various members of the leadership demonstrate a desire to leave a record of their self-reflections made either just prior to or immediately following the mass deaths on 18th November, and an imaginative alternative historian could infer that the Express may have engineered their own subtle message to the wider world, which they knew would be communicated back to the United States in the recordings made by the NBC news crew. While such a motivation cannot be entirely ruled out, it is nonetheless more likely that these were spontaneous changes during the performance.

[1] This lyric altered to reflect the atheist religious viewpoint of the idealised communist society

[2] Ref Cassette Q602: Jonestown Meeting on Governing Relationships (Spring 1978)

[3] at 00:32:25

Originally posted on February 17th, 2021.

Last modified on July 3rd, 2021.
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